Florida-based KB (née Kevin Burgess) is not your typical rapper.
KB spent his youth on St. Petersburg's South side, what he calls "smack dab in one of the worst neighborhoods in the state," and was plagued by a broken home, absent father, drugs, and fights, plus gambling and other youthful troublemaking. But he was also an honors student and academic overachiever who enrolled in college at age 16 and went on to earn a degree in theology at Trinity College at Florida. But perhaps the biggest difference between KB and some others who have a spot on the Billboard rap charts is that his rhymes carry a biblical message. And while Christian rap and hip-hop have been around for a generation, artists such as KB are appealing to mainstream audiences like never before.
"I rap from the struggles people are having around me," KB says. "I'm at the hospital, I'm in their homes, they're in my home. I'm not in the 1 percent, traveling around. I feel like I can actually rap about the issues at hand."
In March KB's second EP, 100, peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard 200, and rose to No. 4 on Billboard’s Rap Albums chart and No. 1 on the Christian Albums chart. More recently, in early May KB and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, which added a new level of responsibility to his music.
Currently in the midst of a U.S. tour, with select dates scheduled through August, KB participated in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview and discussed his views on Christian music and the current state of mainstream hip-hop, his relationship with his MIA father and what he's doing to be there for his own family.
What's your musical background?
I grew up an avid hip-hop fan. My parents essentially considered hip-hop to be the devil, so I wasn't allowed to listen to it freely. I would find myself sneaking into the closet to listen to it, and I'd rush home from school to watch MTV and BET before my mom got home. When I heard the door open I'd change the channel fast and cut the TV off. So I grew up heavily influenced by hip-hop. Also classical music, because I played concert music in [an] orchestra for a long time. I played the trumpet for six years [and] traveled with the band.
The old joke about Christian rap has always been, "Christian plus rap equals crap." What's changed?
I think the message has become more down-to-earth. I don't think we've lost the reality of heaven, but we talk about both. I think it's become more relevant to people. Musically, it's not like we're mimicking anymore. I got the impression from some of the stuff that I heard that dudes had heard "Rapper's Delight," or something from Run-D.M.C., and they would literally try to make a Christian version that was always not as good. And [contemporary Christian music] — love them to death, I have a lot of CCM friends — but for a long time, that's what they did. They heard U2 and they'd go make a million U2 songs that are never as good. And the world looked back and said, "Man, that's sort of an abuse to the actual craft." The craft needs to come from a genuine, real place. We're not mimicking this, we didn't go to hip-hop school. This is who we are.
Mainstream hip-hop gets criticized for producing music that often demeans women and glorifies gun violence and drug use. Can you operate in that world?
We want to push back against those things as hard as we can. One of the things I feel has been so disconnected is that there are a lot of fathers in hip-hop. … Yet I've noticed the standard they hold up for their own children never seems to make its way into their music.
I would love to point out some of those inconsistencies. Not to put anybody down or turn it into a fight, but [I] ask people to realize, "Look, you have a powerful voice with what you're doing. Let your life be consistently about working for the good of people. And if it wouldn't be good for your kids and your family, then don't make it good for our kids and our families."
Do you have a relationship with your own father now?
I appreciate my dad. He's a military man, so he taught me about working with my hands and being a soldier. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he completely abandoned my mom and me when I was around 17. I literally have not talked to him since I was 17. I am willing to have a relationship with him, I love him still and forgive him for what he's done to us. But no, he is MIA.
[We] can respond to that with hatred … or we can respond with forgiveness and love and redeem ourselves. If the Burgess last name has been … muddied with deadbeat father after deadbeat father, then I don't need to continue that. I can actually redeem it by being there for my family, and also making sure my music is responsible and is consistent with my love for my kids.
(Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based writer and teacher. She interviewed Kacey Musgraves for GRAMMY.com in March 2014)